Ian McKellen Shares Controversial Stance On LGBTQ+ Characters

Ian McKellen weighed in on casting decisions in Hollywood and whether LGBTQ+ characters should only be played by folks who identified as such

By Doug Norrie | Updated

ian mckellen

There exists something of a debate in Hollywood, and the acting industry in general, around who should (or shouldn’t) play certain parts in productions. Some feel that characters should only be played by those who can identify fully with the character’s background. Others believe parts should be up for all regardless of identification. It makes for an interesting back and forth and, at times, has become a referendum on acting as a medium. Does acting mean pretending and therefore roles are open to all? Or does it do a disservice to certain groups when an actor or actress is cast as someone they clearly can’t identify? It’s not exactly an easy answer. But Ian McKellen has some thoughts on the subject and seems pretty set in what he believes should happen with roles. 

The acclaimed actor was doing an interview with BBC2 (via Entertainment Weekly) and the topic of roles came up. This came up in response to Helen Mirren being cast as Golda Mier, the former Israeli Prime Minister. There were some who felt this was a miscasting seeing as how Mirren is not Jewish, that the part should have gone to someone from that faith. McKellen used the topic to expand on what he thought about these kinds of casting decisions and whether roles should only go to those who truly understood the background of the character whom they were playing. Here’s part of what he had to say: 

“There are two things: Is the argument that a gentile cannot play a Jew, and is the argument therefore that a Jew cannot play a gentile? Is the argument that a straight man cannot play a gay part, and, if so, does that mean I can’t play straight parts and I’m not allowed to explore the fascinating subject of heterosexuality in Macbeth? Surely not. We’re acting. We’re pretending.”

This opinion from Ian McKellen is likely a debate that will come up quite often going forward when it comes to roles in Hollywood movies and series as well as other productions. Should only actors or actresses with certain backgrounds and identifications be the ones to play parts on the big or small screen? In some ways this would seem self-limiting, not attracting some of the biggest talents for roles simply because they didn’t check enough boxes. The flip side is that maybe this kind of acting doesn’t drill down to the core level of a character and therefore it does the character a disservice. 

Over the years there have been several actors and actresses praised for playing LGBTQ+ roles even though they themselves haven’t identified as such. Charlize Theron in Monster, Sean Penn in Milk, and Trevante Rhodes in Moonlight are just some of the many examples. But in recent years, continued casting along these lines has come into question with more and more talents calling for stricter adherence to identification in roles. Studios have been much more willing to cast actors or actresses who identify as LGBTQ+ in roles. Think Kristen Stewart in Happiest Season or Wilson Cruz in Star Trek: Discovery. The list goes on and on.  It will be interesting to see how it plays out or if there’s a backlash against Ian McKellen for his thoughts on the subject. 

In all, this isn’t likely a debate that will die down anytime soon. And it’s not just reserved for the LGBTQ+ community (the Mirren example for starters). There are other debates around ethnicity and race that will continue to rage especially when casting based on real-life people. We are sure to get more examples before it’s all said and done.